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Leaving Your Child Home Alone: When Is It Legal?

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How old does a child have to be before you can leave him or her home alone? Every spring, working parents start wondering if this is the summer that their child is finally "old enough" to be home during the day, rather than in summer daycare or camp. The answer (or lack of one) may surprise you.

State Laws With Few Answers

It may surprise you to find out that the majority of states have no legal age restriction for leaving children alone at home. Many states don't address it at all while others issue "guidelines" but stop short of declaring a legal age. Of the states that do have laws, the ages can vary widely: North Carolina says that you can leave your child home alone at age 8, but Illinois sets the limit at age 14.

Parental Responsibility And Possible Consequences

Since leaving your child home alone is essentially a judgment call, what happens if someone else starts questioning your judgment? Frankly, the answer depends on the situation and who's doing the judging.

If your neighbor or a well-intentioned relative reports you to the local police, you could:

  • find caseworkers from children's protective services at your doorstep
  • have your children taken into protective custody
  • have to undergo parenting classes or counseling
  • be charged with child neglect
  • spend time in jail for child neglect (if convicted)

The National SAFEKIDS Campaign says that the minimum age that a child should be left alone is 12, but that's by no means a "standard" that can be applied to all children. A child's behavior, maturity, intelligence, and ability to handle emergencies has to also be taken into account.

Parents And Vicarious Liability

Another problem with leaving your child home alone is that you are subject to whatever your state laws say about the vicarious liability of parents. Vicarious liability laws impose punishments on parents for a child's negligent or criminal actions, even if the parent had no idea what the child was doing.

Essentially, the law theorizes that parents have a legal duty to control and supervise their children. In civil matters where there's monetary damage involved, the law also believes that its just for a parent to take over the financial debts incurred by the child. This can end up putting you in a great deal of legal risk if something happens while your child is unsupervised.

For example, if your unsupervised 14-year-old son "borrows" your spare car while you're at work and wrecks it into a neighbors house while joyriding with friends, you could end up facing criminal charges for neglect and civil damages for your neighbor's property damage. If your son takes your shotgun along for the ride and shoots out some mailboxes, you could face criminal charges for not controlling access to the firearm.

Every situation is unique. If you find yourself in a situation where your decision to leave a child home alone has led to civil or criminal charges - or allegations of child neglect - contact an attorney immediately for assistance. For more information, contact a firm such as Medeiros & Associates.